Debating the uniqueness of the Holocaust

Published: 1996-05-31

Debating the uniqueness of the Holocaust

Comparisons of the Holocaust with other historical events can provoke furious arguments. To both the people making the comparisons and those who object to them, much is at stake.

For the scholars who are offended when black slavery is referred to as a holocaust, or who balk at using the term "genocide" to describe the Serbs' campaign against Bosnia, language is being cheapened. They worry that the depravity of Hitler's attempt to annihilate the Jews will be forgotten if the Holocaust becomes an all-purpose measuring stick for other evils.

For advocates of the victims of other campaigns of horror, holding up the Holocaust as a unique evil has a moral cost, too. If the Holocaust is unlike anything else that has ever happened — a pure evil floating above the rest of history — then the admonition "Never again" has a scope so narrow that it is almost useless.

A new collection of essays edited by Alan S. Rosenbaum, a professor of philosophy at Cleveland State University, brings together advocates and bitter detractors of the "uniqueness thesis." Is the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives in Comparative Genocide (Westview Press) is sometimes rancorous. In fact, in his foreword, Israel W. Charny, executive director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide, in Jerusalem, suggests that some of the essays are valuable only in demonstrating the ugliness of much scholarship on comparative genocide. Too many parts of the book, he says, are "spun from the same cloth of all-or-nothing, ideologically driven thinking, prejudice, arrogance or degradation, and posturing for power."

Project Almost Derailed

A nasty fight among several contributors and the editor, with charges of dubious scholarship and unethical editing, almost derailed the project. At the center of the dispute was Steven T. Katz, a Cornell University professor of Jewish thought and history who believes that the Holocaust is the one instance in history of the attempted eradication of an entire people.

After reading the galleys of the book, he was so upset by the attacks on him and his work that he threatened to withdraw his essay. He wanted the foreword to be toned down, as well as an essay by David E. Stannard, a professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii. Mr. Stannard had argued that Mr. Katz was the moral equivalent of a Holocaust denier, because he rejected the idea that people other than Jews had experienced true genocide.

Mr. Rosenbaum, the editor, tried to smooth things over by pushing for a few changes in the two essays — without saying why. The authors went along for a while. Then, in a slip that even Mr. Rosenbaum describes as Freudian, the editor prepared a fax updating Mr. Katz on the contributors' compliance with the changes — and sent it to Mr. Stannard in Hawaii.

After two more weeks of infighting, as well as consultations with Westview's lawyers, the essays were largely restored to their original form.

Mr. Katz now refers to the book as "a disgraceful business." Mr. Stannard calls it a "setup," designed from the start to defend the idea of Holocaust uniqueness.

Comparing Tragic Events

Despite the tensions, the essays for the most part involve careful comparisons of Hitler's "Final Solution" with other events: the mass murder of Armenians in 1915, Hitler's campaign against Gypsies, the starvation of Ukrainian peasants during Stalin's forced collectivization.

Mr. Rosenbaum, whose previous work concerned the prosecution of Nazi war criminals and the philosophy of human rights, believes that comparisons with other mass murders are an inevitable step in the historiography of the Final Solution. "We have established a public record that the Holocaust occurred, and we have a very good idea of what its dimensions are," he says. "Now what we have to do is reach a settled opinion of how the Holocaust is going to be viewed by future generations."

The war in the former Yugoslavia and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in Rwanda have intensified debates in the press and academic circles about the definition of genocide, a word that was coined in 1944 by a scholar and lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, to describe the Holocaust. Mr. Rosenbaum also notes that the debate over uniqueness rages in ugly ways outside the academy — for example, in speeches by spokesmen for the Nation of Islam that dismiss the Holocaust as trivial next to the Atlantic slave trade.

Mr. Rosenbaum opted to concentrate on a few of the most discussed cases — the book includes only passing references to Bosnia, Rwanda, and Cambodia — to clarify philosophical issues and avoid the "laundry-list phenomenon."

'Unlike Any Other'

The idea that the enormity of the Holocaust beggars comparison has theological overtones. Elie Wiesel has written that "the Event remains unique, unlike any other Product of History, it transcends History." Mr. Katz has been one of the most prominent proponents of the historical version of this argument. He is at work on the second volume of a projected three-volume work called The Holocaust in Historical Context (Oxford University Press).

In the Westview volume, he explains his belief that the treatment of indigenous peoples by imperialists, the famine in the Ukraine overseen by Stalin, and the killings in Armenia were different in structure or magnitude from the Holocaust.

Most Native Americans, he argues, died from diseases spread, largely unknowingly, by Europeans. He assumes for the sake of argument that Stalin purposely caused a famine in the Ukraine. But still, he says, the death rate of 20 per cent in the Ukraine sets it apart from the Holocaust, in which two-thirds of all European Jews died.

In the massacres of the Armenians by the Turkish revolutionaries in World War I, he continues, eliminating every Armenian within Turkey's borders was not the government's ambition. The Turks had accused the Armenians of aiding Russian invaders and attempted to drive them out of northeast Turkey. Hundreds of thousands died during forced marches. The Armenian tragedy, Mr. Katz says, was an inhuman subjugation of a minority, but it was not a holocaust.

Competing Claims

Other essays buttress aspects of the uniqueness argument. Barbara B. Green, a professor of political science at Cleveland State, argues that collectivization, not murder, was Stalin's chief goal. The University of Pittsburgh's Seymour Drescher, a historian, suggests that while the ships that brought slaves to the New World could be as disgusting and deadly as concentration camps, slavery ultimately depended on keeping its victims alive.

Still other contributors, however, argue that the uniqueness theory is an attempt by Jewish scholars to claim a special kind of victimhood for Jews, and Jews alone. Vahakn N. Dadrian, a sociologist who retired from the State University of New York College at Geneseo in 1991, says the Armenian genocide mirrors the Holocaust in all but the sheer number of dead and the technological proficiency of the murderers.

The Armenians, he says, were historically viewed in Turkey as a parasitic people, and the Young Turks seized on the pretext of wartime emergency to get rid of them. The U.S. Ambassador at the time reported seeing rivers clogged with Armenian victims of mass drownings.

"My contention is that case studies concentrating on either the Armenian genocide or Holocaust have very limited value," Mr. Dadrian says. "In order to analyze, you need to discern patterns. And to be able to generalize — even to come up with a definition of genocide — you need comparative studies."

But such comparative scholarship has barely got off the ground, he says, because some scholars "are actually resentful that Armenian scholars dare to compare the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust."

In another essay, Ian Hancock, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, says the dearth of scholarly work on Gypsy victims of the Holocaust is due, in part, to efforts by some scholars to maintain the uniqueness of what happened to the Jews.

A Scorching Critique

The most scorching critique of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, however, comes from Mr. Stannard. His book American Holocaust (Oxford University Press, 1992) catalogues atrocities against the people of North and South America from the beginning of colonization td the present. In his new essay, he blasts the "self-serving masquerade of Jewish genocide uniqueness." Mr. Katz, he charges, looks at other genocides with the sole purpose of minimizing them.

"By hanging on to all these finely tuned technicalities, and insisting on the priority of this one event, it serves to legitimize the killing of other people," Mr. Stannard said in an interview.

This is beyond the pale for Mr. Katz. "Nobody says that we all should agree, but there is a certain morality and ethics of scholarship," he says.

"Dadrian and I fundamentally disagree," he adds, referring to the scholar of Armenia, "but we don't call each other names. One is capable of writing about these things in a dispassionate and honorable way."

Mr. Katz was the only contributor allowed to see the book before publication. He had requested a copy because, he said, he wanted to refer to it in his next book. Mr. Rosenbaum says Mr. Katz abused the courtesy of being allowed to see the galleys.

Contributing to 'Clarity'

The rawness of the book, Mr. Rosenbaum suggests, reflects the rawness of the debate. "It's going to take many years for the furor to settle down, but I want my book to contribute to the clarity that eventually emerges."

He adds: "We are hearing from the principals in this debate. They are making arguments on their own terms. Over time, we, the public, are going to forget who the principals are, and we are going to have to look more closely at the facts."

The bitterness enveloping the book raises the question of whether scholarship comparing genocides inherently invites moral one-upmanship.

Asking whether the Holocaust is unique "is perfectly valid," says Mr. Charny, who wrote the preface. "But it's obscene to take hold of the answer in an absolute way that excludes quiet, careful, respectful observation of other events."

Copyright Chronicle of Higher Education May 31, 1996

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Title:Debating the uniqueness of the Holocaust
Summary:A new book entitled "Is the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives in Comparative Genocide," by Alan S. Rosenbaum, has led to bitter fights over the uniqueness of the Holocaust and the ethics of publishing.
Source:The Chronicle of Higher Education
Date:May 31, 1996
Regular Price:$1.00
Document ID:ZZ19971224110109196
Subject(s):Publishing; Nazi era; Genocide; Ethics; Books; Atrocities
Citation Information:ISSN: 0009-5982; Vol. 42 No. 38; p. A6
Author(s):Christopher Shea
Document Type:Article

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Author(s): Christopher Shea
Title: Debating the uniqueness of the Holocaust
Sources: The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 42 No. 38; p. A6
Published: 1996-05-31
First posted on CODOH: May 29, 1996, 7 p.m.
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